Retention: A Gift of Time


 It’s that time of year when some parents will be hearing the words that they just don’t want to hear, “Your child needs to be retained and repeat the school year.”  For most it shouldn’t be a surprise.  The teacher has mentioned in conferences, phone calls and notes home that the student is working below grade level and not keeping up with his peers.    

Most parents accept the idea when they are convinced that retention is in the best interests of their child.  However, many other parents remain in denial about their child’s abilities, or are afraid that he’ll be teased by other children for being “held back.”

 In some grades parents don’t have a choice, retention is based on test scores and/or achieving minimum standard for promotion.  In those grades where retention is not mandatory, it’s been my experience that teachers are the best judges of academic ability and the benefits of retaining a child.  Most of the time the teachers have at least a year of observing the child’s academic experience and an arsenal of test scores to support the position of retention.  While I believe the teacher’s recommendation is probably almost always correct, parents are not expected to blindly follow a teacher’s suggestion without some explanation and discussion.

 A conference in which retention is thoroughly explored should be held with the parents, the primary teacher, and perhaps other school support personnel.  A parent should feel free to ask, and have answered, any and all questions they have regarding this issue.  Here are examples of the types of questions you might include in your discussion:

 What are our child’s test scores in comparison to the rest of the students?  Where does he fit in?

 Do you think our child needs to be screened for a learning disability?

 In the primary grades consider your child’s age and social and physical maturity.  Is our child younger or older than the other kids?   Is he larger or smaller than average?  How does he interact socially with the other children?  

 Is our child below grade level in one subject or more?

 Would some additional help over the summer or during the upcoming school year be a better alternative?

 If you are not sure that retention is the right thing after your conference, don’t just summarily dismiss the idea, but tell the teacher you’d like a little more time to think about and/or discuss the issue with the child’s other parent.  But don’t discuss your feelings in front of your child and remain calm and reasoned about the issue in your discussion with the other parent. 

 Although retention may be a difficult decision for you, remember that it may well be the best thing you can do for your child.  Kids that are struggling academically often become class leaders when they repeat a grade.  Any issues your retained child may have with self-esteem are soon forgotten, especially if your child succeeds and becomes a leader in his new class.  Alternatively, it is heartbreaking to see a child that is struggling being promoted to the next grade at the parent’s insistence.  That child is probably set up to fail from the first day of the next school year, and they probably know it.

 If it helps you to decide, try to think of retention as a gift to your child, a gift of time.  Someone much more eloquent than I said that life is a journey not a race, and this is especially true when it comes to the social, emotional and academic development of a child.  If you decide that retention is in fact a good idea, be direct and honest about the reasons with your child.  Even if you have mixed emotions, do not show disappointment or reveal any negative feelings you may harbor.  The way parents respond to a teacher’s suggestion of retention often color the experience in a positive or negative way and can have a dramatic effect on their child’s self esteem.  Be ready for any reaction, but you might even be surprised that your child is relieved by the decision.

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2 Comments + Add Comment

  • I was very disappointed to see that this post states that retention is an option for children who are immature or who have learning disabilities.

    Retention is not a new concept; it’s been around since the days of the Little Red Schoolhouse, yet I find it amazing that there are those who still feel it is a solution to LD kids.

    There is overwhelming research (Educational Leadership: “Synthesis of Research on Grade Retention”, Shepherd and Smith, 1990) that shows that though children who are retained initially show improvement in the year or two after being held back, that advantage is lost later on.

    Those children end up being again the lowest-achieving students in the class. Studies also show that if one child is held back and another promoted, the one who is held back is four times more likely to drop out of high school!

    The studies also show that:
    1) children who are held back also perform worse than if they had just been allowed to continue on to the next grade,
    2) children view retention as punishment, and as a result have lower levels of self-esteem,
    3) almost any other alternative, whether summer school, tutoring, or remedial help, is more beneficial than retention.

    Even transitional classes fail to achieve their goal. That’s because the idea of being given “extra time” is based on the assumption that these kids will receive intensive help. In fact that extra help is almost never given, and the transitional year ends up being the same as repeating the same grade with a different teacher.

  • Thank you for this post. My son has epilepsy. Up until this year he was having over 100 seizures a day, and unable to perform academically in school. His seizures stopped abruptly this December (2011) and he has not had a single seizure since. He has an IEP for “other” in school, and each year he has simply been “passed” on to the next grade.

    When he stopped having seizures, his capacity to learn exploded. He went from avoiding work and barely learning – to catching up and catching up fast.

    We have just made the decision to keep him back in 2nd grade. He has missed out on so much of his educational experience because of epilepsy – things like how to play with his peers; learning how to read; and having confidence in himself. We will be breaking the news to him tomorrow. It was not an easy decision to make – we’re of course worried that he’ll be upset, that he’ll miss his friends, and that he’ll feel bad about himself. However, you are right – life IS a journey not a race. And not every child is the same experiences in life.

    We are lucky that we have a good support group and team. And we are excited for him to finally lead a life without epilepsy and struggling in school.

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